Many canonized directors often wind up endlessly lauded for a single work, and for Alain Resnais Last Year at Marienbad is that film. I had heard about it numerous times before ever once hearing about a single post-sixties film of his, or even his 1963 Muriel, made only two years afterwards. I suppose like many people, I started with Marienbad, deemed it the first experimental film I had ever seen that I simply could not get into, and then soon after billed Resnais as a pretentious French intellectual. The past few months have brought me up to speed on Resnais. I watched Muriel and found a painful, relevant, and all too real story, the shattered chronology a profound reflection of the characters’ shattered emotions and overall disillusionment. I then read up a bit about Resnais and among other things learned that he loves comic books, and came to a perception of him radically different from that I had formed after my novice viewing of Marienbad. A few weeks ago I revisited Marienbad and was completely absorbed; watching films on a laptop is not always an immersive experience, but I never once removed my eyes from the screen during the film’s entirely, viewing it as a hypnotic fairytale rather than a puzzle to be solved.
Today I watched Mélo, a film so far off from avant-garde snobbery I would imagine people whose only familiarity with Resnais is Marienbad would be genuinely shocked at its melodramatic restraint. The film consists of five or six lengthy scenes with a few interludes in between, a red curtain showing up three times to mark the end of each act. Associating Resnais primarily with montage, it is something of a surprise that Mélo is comprised of lengthy takes filmed with an inquisitive and at times interrogative camera. His mise-en-scéne reflects the 1920s in its cubist, but otherwise non-showy, set design, and to emulate the feeling of a theatrical production, he unnaturally dims and brightens his lights during shots to heighten the drama. The story is too conventional for anyone to take notice, a love affair leading to a suicide culminating in a confrontation between the widower and his wife’s lover, both of whom happen to be best friends. Reading what Bazin says of Renoir’s The River, he discusses how the film’s content is conventional to the extent that a novel (either its source material or yet another adaptation) would be subpar; the reason the film is a masterpiece is that Renoir goes beyond the conventionality of his dramatic conflict to craft a film more concerned with visual relationships and analogies and thematic conveyances of the eternal cycle of life.
Mélo, a film I believe to be greatly superior to The River, is a film based on a Henry Bernstein play I can’t imagine is much better than the Rumer Godden’s novel that formed the basis of The River. And yet instead of trying to transcend his source material by arriving at some kind of insight about life or painting over it with lush visuals or removing the necessity for linear plot, Resnais stays true and adheres so firmly to melodrama, the term in which the film’s title originates, that his film becomes a beautiful and more importantly unpretentious telling of a sort of typical story. Resnais directs his actors so carefully and shoots their scenes together so intimately, that the result is endlessly touching. Mélo is perhaps the zenith of what one might call an un-cinematic stage play, and yet, paraphrasing what Bazin said of Wyler’s The Little Foxes, it registers precisely as cinematic by nature of its restraint and asceticism and lack of formal exertion. This is a great film.